Does your high school have lots of clubs to choose from? Do you have art and music classes? Sports teams? Are there guidance counselors to support you when you need someone to talk to and to help you apply to colleges?
For many New York City students, especially those who are black or Latinx, the answer to these questions is no. Yet other students in the same school system have all of these resources in abundance. Resource inequity is a major problem in New York’s public schools, and minority students are most affected. Sixteen-year-old Leanne Nunes is one New York City student who has seen and experienced inequity in education firsthand—and is committed to changing it.
“I knew from a young age how different other people’s lives were from mine. I knew that if you were white and had money you had the opportunity to get the greatest things. And if you looked like me and had a family like mine you didn’t have as much,” says Leanne, whose family is from Jamaica.
When she was in 9th grade, her school social worker recommended she attend a meeting at IntegrateNYC, a youth-led organization that is working to end school segregation. Sixty-five years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education required schools to integrate, New York’s public schools are in practice still deeply segregated by race. At IntegrateNYC, Leanne discovered a place where she could speak about the issues she cared about, learn more about the systems that caused these inequities, and figure out how they could be challenged. “At Integrate, I feel that my voice and who I am can be very powerful,” she says.
IntegrateNYC works towards achieving “Real Integration,” which it defines by the five R’s—racial integration, resource allocation, restorative justice, teacher representation, and relationships across group identities.
When I met Leanne, she was wearing a white T-shirt and a printed kimono-like jacket. Her hair, long and braided, was in a high ponytail and she wore deep red lipstick. She speaks clearly and slowly and smiles often. She is currently a junior at a Bronx high school, “which may not have everything, but it does value student voice and few schools do,” she says. Some of the things it’s missing are “soap and toilet tissue in the bathrooms most of the time.”
Outside of school, Leanne is Director of Equity at IntegrateNYC. But what exactly does “equity” mean? It’s often confused with equality, and she says the difference is important.
“Let’s say you’re in a room with people who are getting glasses. Equality would mean everyone gets a pair of glasses, even those who don’t need them. But equity is only giving glasses to those who need them,” Leanne explains. Her own glasses, seemingly in need of repair, are held in place with tape. “So you are helping only the people who need help. There’s nothing wrong with giving someone nothing when they don’t need anything.” In practice, this means putting aside more money for older schools that need repair or hiring more staff for arts where there are none.
Leanne is responsible for making sure underrepresented groups, like students with disabilities and undocumented immigrants, have a voice at IntegrateNYC. But she seemed most excited about her collaborative work with educators to create an ethnic studies curriculum to present to New York City’s Department of Education.
Leanne doesn’t want future generations to experience the same disappointments she did: “There have been things I have wanted to explore, but they weren’t at my schools. I love art so much, but I was told by my schools that there wasn’t money for a teacher, or if there was a teacher, there wasn’t money for supplies.”
Making educational experiences equitable in New York City’s school system is a daunting task, but Leanne doesn’t seem fazed. “I don’t like to see people struggle and fail and it’s been happening for literally centuries. I feel like this could be the century that it ends and I want to be a part of it.”
Get involved at integratenyc.org.